In Canada, your picture’s worth a thousand words for privacy

Walk down the street in the U.S. and your image belongs to anyone and everyone. But walk down the street in Canada and that image is yours and you own it.

This is because strict privacy laws in Canada govern all collection, use and disclosure in the course of commercial activity, according to Canadian privacy lawyer David Fraser.

“It’s a very different legal environment than in the United States … in the U.S., all this is based on a reasonable expectation of privacy. You don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy walking down the street [in the U.S.],” says Halifax-based Fraser.

Canada’s federal privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, recently wrote to Google Inc. to alert the online search company of her concerns should Google Street View expand to include Canadian cities and towns.

Google Street View was launched as a feature of Google Maps in the U.S. in May and allows viewers to navigate at street level, showing images of the surrounding environment and sometimes of the people who happen to be there too.

In her letter to David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, Stoddart wrote that were the Street View application deployed in Canada, “… it might not comply with our federal privacy legislation.”

“One of the reasons we sent the letter was because we saw that the way the technology had been deployed in some U.S. cities allows you to clearly see faces,” said Colin McKay, of the Privacy Commissioner’s Office.

Fraser notes that Canadian privacy law is different from the U.S. in that the collection, use or disclosure of personal information, in the course of commercial activity, requires the consent of the individual whose information is collected.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of doubt that an image of you doing something is your personal information and, just based on that and a strict reading of the privacy law, it would seem that Google requires your consent,” adds Fraser.

The key difference is commercial use. “If you do it on your own Facebook account, or on your own blog, the law can take an exception for your own personal or domestic use of information, so the privacy law doesn’t cover those activities,” says Fraser.

In addition to the letter to Google, Stoddart also wrote to Calgary-based Immersive Media Corp., as their GeoImmersive database consists of more than 40,000 miles of imagery in North America.

McKay adds that the Privacy Commissioner’s Office sent the letters because Immersive Media confirmed they had already done imaging in Canadian cities. “We wanted to make sure we’d had a discussion about privacy before the pictures were made public … and about the steps they were taking to guarantee the privacy of Canadian citizens.”

According to Stoddart’s letter, Immersive Media is making these images commercially available, “… and that images from the United States are available on the World Wide Web through the Google Street View application.”

Google says it worked with several public service organizations to address privacy concerns before it launched Street View, according to Computerworld (U.S.). “And we abide by the local laws of the countries in which we operate,” a spokesperson said.”

We routinely review takedown requests and act quickly to remove objectionable imagery,” she added. “To date, we have received very few imagery removal requests.”

Fraser points out that Canadian privacy laws are complaints-based. “There’s really no basis for anybody to complain because Google hasn’t introduced it in Canada … [it would be] premature to think that somehow there’s going to be a lawsuit before the service has been launched in Canada,” says Fraser.

“[But] it’s timely on the part of the Privacy Commissioner to let them know her thoughts before they even launch, so that they can take it into account.”

At a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in France last week, Google proposed that governments and technology companies develop a transnational privacy policy to address concerns over how personal data is managed across the Internet.

Neither Google nor Immersive Media responded to requests from for comment prior to publication.

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